TURNING HER HAND TO CRIME
Susan Hill surprised her many followers when she entered the world of crime fiction with her novels centred around senior detective Simon Serrailler but, as Susan herself points out, her aim was not to ask 'whodunnit?' but 'why?'
Our reviewers check out the six titles in the series.
All six books are published by Vintage in paperback and e-book.
THE VARIOUS HAUNTS OF MEN
Susan Hill has assembled a large cast of characters who live in or near the cathedral town of Bevham. We meet Simon Serrailler, a senior policeman, his sister Cat Deerbon who is the local GP and other members of their family. Freya Graffham, a Detective Sergeant, has moved to the area from London to make a fresh start and she finds herself working for the enigmatic Simon and making friends with Cat.
Two women have gone missing. There is no apparent connection between them but Freya is uneasy about them and follows up the investigation. When a middle-aged woman and a dog also go missing, events accelerate. In her portrayal of medical charlatans and vulnerable people, Susan Hill gives a believable modern explanation of what most people crave in place of the religious faith they have lost. The themes of loneliness, grief, bereavement and love at first sight are wonderfully evoked.
I loved the setting and the musical background, the beautiful prose and the raw emotion of the characters. No wonder Susan Hill is so acclaimed. She gives emotional depth and a very moving ending to this first book in the series of crime novels. There are many themes to discuss as well as a crime to solve.
This is the first Detective Chief Inspector Simon Serrailler novel. People are going missing up on a local beauty spot known as The Hill, at first the Police are not alarmed but as more people disappear, the more sinister things appear in each circumstance. Enter the bright Freya Graffham just transferred in from the London Met and her gut tells her there is more to these disappearances.
Susan Hill’s style of writing has much clarity, and reading this novel is not dissimilar to watching a movie, it’s easy to read, but leaves nothing out. The characters, especially Fraya Graffham are likable and the reader can feel like she’s your friend, or at least someone you know personally.
This book has a very unexpected ending, and what you do not expect happens, however, not only do we get the cliff hanger, sat on the edge of your seat final chapters but we are also treated to the final wrap up and closure of afterwards, again perhaps something that we become used to in TV programs, but less so in the written word.
By reading this book, I have found an author that I will be reading more of in the future.
This is an excellent novel in itself, but as a series book one, I think it is outstanding.
Susan Hill, intrigues the reader with a quotation from a tape recording, places them in the passenger seat of the book's first character and drives them into the 'ectoplasmic fog'. Hill guides us around the geography of Lafferton through each character's life and locale where each has their own familial circle whether eventually victim or survivor. She constructs further circles of relationships, such as that made by the newly arrived Detective Sergeant, to introduce us to yet more characters who gradually close the circle with those who are not only colleagues and friends but relations of DCI Simon Serrailler.
Hill does not overly describe such characters but by carefully focusing their conversations on subjects common to us, the reader, we identify with them and their organisations, like the cathedral choir, the debate between new-age therapies and Hippocratic medicine, long friendships, and the Police. It is our folly to do so, for some of those characters die horribly, leaving others with whom we may not have identified so graciously to carry on. Thus, we are introduced to Simon Serrailler.
THE PURE IN HEART
The second in Hill’s crime series featuring Chief Detective Inspector Simon Serrailler, The Pure in Heart is another assured piece of sensitive and absorbing writing. Called back from a holiday in Venice when his severely disabled youngest sister, Martha, contracts pneumonia, Simon finds himself heading up the investigation into the disappearance of a nine-year-old boy, David Angus, who has vanished without a trace. Glad to have something to distract him from the feelings that last year’s shocking murder stirred up, Simon throws himself into the case with the help of Nathan Coates, newly promoted to Detective Sergeant.
This novel concentrates more on the community of Lafferton and its reaction to the crime than actual police work. Simon himself is far more present in this novel than the first in the series, and he reveals himself as highly contradictory. He can be generous, lively and amusing but also cold, distant and intensely private.
Cat Deerbon, Simon’s sister, is the heart of the novel. Pregnant with her third child, she finds herself deeply upset by David’s disappearance, especially in addition to her family’s own situation with Martha. The disintegration of David’s family is also profoundly affecting. The portrait of a grieving family is shown in such intimate detail that it feels almost voyeuristic. Details such as his mother adding cold water because she shouldn’t be allowed a hot bath whilst her son is missing are brilliantly and sensitively observed.
It is not a cheerful book, and there are many loose ends left untied, but it is excellent. The inhabitants of Lafferton feel real and the rest of the series have shot straight to the top of my reading list.
This is a Simon Serrailler novel and is the second one in this series but you really don’t need to have read any of the series to be pulled feet first into this world that Susan Hill has created, it is so like real life that it will make you wonder.
A boy goes missing from outside his front gate. A simple idea and with Susan Hill writing the novel it is a fantastic creation. It is unsettling how the reader can become absorbed into this world and not always wanting to move forward because you know what you will find. You begin to piece aspects of Simon’s life together you witness the struggles that he has to face in his personal and private life as a DCI. You can see a side that you don’t like by they way he is rejects Diane, not understanding his motives.
It is a well-written novel and is based on a simple idea but the book is full of different twists and turns and a whole load of characters. It is not for the faint hearted because it really makes you think not just about the main plot but the sub plots too.
THE RISK OF DARKNESS
The Risk of Darkness is the third novel in the Simon Serrailler series. In this novel, DCI Serrailler is challenged to solve the mysteries of serial killing, kidnap and evil. There were times while reading that I found myself ‘clinging’ to the book because the words and the writing were so entrancing and the characters are well crafted and likeable (well, most of them!). At the beginning of the book there is a brief summary of what has happened in previous novels, which gives a new reader a bit of background history to Simon Serrailler, but, to be honest, although this is interesting, because of the accessible style of writing, The Risk of Darkness could easily be read as a stand-alone novel.
One of the benefits of the book is that the setting of the story is mostly around the North Yorkshire coastline, Scarborough to be precise, which gives the story a much more realistic feel to it (even if some of the villages have had their names altered).
This is the first Susan Hill novel I have read, but it won’t be the last.
The Risk of Darkness is Susan Hill’s third novel in Simon Serrailler series. Having not read the first two my enjoyment of the story or understanding of the main characters did not seem affected. I read the novel in a couple of days and wanted to know what happened; however, I was somewhat disappointed, as whilst at times there was pace and excitement eg an exciting description of the main character being trapped on a cliff in a storm with a murderer, this was not maintained because much of the novel focused around family relationships and a rather uninteresting family. Susan Hill is not afraid to tackle difficult issues, nor to face up to the realities of stress in a busy police station and the main storyline focuses on child abduction starting with the arrest of the abductor. However, there are too many irrelevant sub-plots which are not developed or in the case of the crazy grief of a widowed husband, a derangement which turns to obsession and threats, violence and terror, frankly unbelievable. These sub-plots detract from the main plot and the main murderer; I was deeply unsatisfied with not finding more about the murderer and her motivation. For me Simon Serrailler himself does not ‘grab’ the reader; he is a cold fish and quite unlikeable with few if any redeeming features. The other characters are also insufficiently developed and stereotypical.
As with other Susan Hill books it is a disturbing novel and raises issues about the darker side of life and the struggles within relationships that superficially appear to be friendly and contented. Undoubtedly Susan Hill is a gifted and talented writier, hence the reason for me being encouraged to read on and quickly but I was left greatly disappointed, whereas her other books often leave me thinking.
THE VOWS OF SILENCE
The Vows of Silence is book four in the Serrailler series of crime novels by Susan Hill. Simon Serrailler is the Chief Superintendent in charge of an investigation into the hunt for a gunman who is targeting, and randomly killing young women in the quiet town of Lafferton. The police enquiry is complicated as the killer leaves no clues and, with no indication of the reason behind the crime, the police are struggling to track down the murderer.
Running alongside the main story are several complicated subplots, which add extra interest and bring into focus the emotional side of policing, as Serrailler has to deal with personal tragedy within his own family. The conclusion, whilst not overly shocking, does help to tidy up the loose ends, and leads almost certainly into the continuation of the story in future books.
Susan Hill has a nice and easy style of writing; she has an uncanny ability to get right into the very core of her characters, and ultimately, delivers a well-plotted murder/mystery. Although I hadn’t read any of the previous books in the Serrailler series, Susan Hill includes enough references to past events to enable the reader to pick up on who belongs where, and why. However, as with all series, I am sure the books are best read in sequence from the beginning.
Overall, this is a good personal read, as there are enough clever twists in the story to maintain reader interest. I am sure that book groups with an interest in discussing crime novels will enjoy analysing the finer issues of plot, motive and malice.
This is the fourth Serrailller detective novel. True to format it is a “soft” crime novel, with a strong local non-crime backdrop. Having said that, somebody is shooting young women in Lafferton. Simon Serrailler’s private life is still unsettled and his family is going through particularly difficult times.
I have mixed feelings about this novel. Regarding the crime, as a plus I didn’t spot “who” until almost the end, but as a minus I was not entirely convinced by the killer’s internal monologues. There were a number of “red herring” themes, but I didn’t feel that they meshed successfully with the main one. I also had problems of belief with the timings of the playing out of Serrailler family problems across the crime/police procedures.
Susan Hill is a fine novelist, but on this occasion I felt the multiple themes and issues became a weakness rather than a strength. They left a feeling that not only had I’d missed something important, but that the novel was over-rushed and unbalanced. But it was still interesting, and with the strong private background there are topics for groups to discuss.
THE SHADOWS IN THE STREET
Simon Serrailler, policeman and artist, and his sister, recently widowed Dr Cat Deerbon, are once again the central characters in this fifth book in the series. Although many of the other characters are also featured in previous stories, there are sufficient pointers given for it to be enjoyed as a stand-alone novel.
A number of murders have shocked the cathedral city of Lafferton and, almost as disturbing, has been the appointment of a new Dean who is stirring up internecine strife with his radical plans for change. The developing story is full of fascinating subplots that cover such issues as poverty, prostitution, violence, care of the dying, bereavement, isolation, mental illness and cathedral politics.
One of the ongoing attractions of this series for me is that the novels aren’t conventional crime/police procedural stories but, rather, cover a wide range of social and psychological issues in a sensitive and non-judgemental way. Susan Hill is excellent at demonstrating how the repercussions of crime affect the lives of everyone, even those not directly involved.
I found all the characters believable, and liked the way in which the author explores, in a thoughtful and sensitive way, human weaknesses and the pain and sadness in peoples’ lives. Her exploration of her characters’ personalities and relationships is convincing, as is her depiction of life in Lafferton and the role of the cathedral in the community. I was a little disappointed with what I felt to be a rather rushed ending, not like her usual, considered style. However, this is a small criticism of what was otherwise an enjoyable and engaging story.
This is the fourth in the Serrailler series of detective novels but it is a complete story and needs no previous knowledge of any of the characters.
Simon Serrailler is taking an extended break after a big case and is spending it on Taransay, about as remote as he can be from the cathedral city where he works and where his family live. By the time he is called back to run an investigation, two prostitutes have been murdered and a search is on for a third and it gets worse as more women go missing and the police have no leads and no clues. As each character is introduced with just enough details to feel we know them and their circumstances the tension builds; will they be victim, suspect, murderer, unfortunate discoverer of a body or witness?
I read this in two sittings, and was immediately pulled into the plot. Each character left an impression and I was guessing, suspecting, worrying my way through and guessing until almost the end. I shall be seeking out the other titles in this excellent series anticipating more exciting plots. Plenty to discuss for book groups as well as a satisfying personal read.
To paraphrase the author`s own words from the book, “what delighted (the reader) was the prose, the sense of place, the richness of the text”.
Susan Hill`s ability to draw bijou personalities of her minor characters, bringing them to life to play their individual parts in the drama, which is the murder of prostitutes in the town of Lafferton, contributes largely to the enjoyment of the mystery. She describes the areas of the town with such clarity that you can walk along the canal in the darkness, feel the infinite strength of the ancient Cathedral and the peace of the Close, smell the flowers and absorb the atmosphere created by sunshine, the rain and the shadows.
Once again, her confident yet self-contained Detective Chief Inspector Simon Serailler uses his understanding of human emotions and actions in order to pursue the objective; who is strangling the girls and why do they deviate to include two other local women, ordinary residents of the town. He and his team have to avoid red herrings in their high profile investigation which involves not only the public but the residents of Cathedral Close where he himself lives not far from his sister Cat, a doctor and her three children who are mourning the death of Cat's husband. Will he final solve the case? Such is the author`s artistry, it is impossible to work out who the perpetrator is until the final pages.
A truly rewarding read, I look forward to reading more from Susan Hill. I have become a devoted fan.
THE BETRAYAL OF TRUST
This (most recent) Simon Serrailler story is a great read; subtle and intriguing at times, with strong emotions and an interesting interplay between characters. The first few chapters misleadingly suggest comfort escapism with well-portrayed but a seemingly predictable set of characters within a typical crime novel scenario.
As the investigation progresses, however, we learn that many of the characters (in fact rather too many, I
felt, at times) are troubled by their own problems, from which conflicting and often harrowing memories, feelings and fears, arise. The characters are well differentiated and realistic, with unexpected qualities and faults whether their intentions are good, questionable or unscrupulous.
The problems include incurable illnesses such as Motor Neurone disease and related issues such as euthanasia, assisted suicide, aging and disability, as well as the central enigma of the two young girls murdered sixteen years ago.
Susan Hill has skilfully interwoven all these with the solving of the crime and the attraction between DCI Serrailler and Rachel Wyatt, whose husband has advanced Parkinson’s.
I recommend The Betrayal of Trust (interesting how many of the different situations this title can be applied to) particularly to reading groups as the issues explored would provide plenty of discussion.
I am always surprised that Susan Hill’s series about Simon Serrailler is classified as crime fiction. In this one there is a crime, the bones of a young girl who has been missing for sixteen years are found and Simon has the task of going through all the old files and eventually the mystery is solved, yet there is so much more. The interest for me is more in the family background and relationships of Simon and his G.P. sister, Cat, and in the moral and ethical issues that are examined.
This book is bleaker than some of the others in the series as it deals with end of life issues. Dementia, terminal illness, assisted suicide are all discussed but because we care about the characters coping with these problems and what choices they will make, it is a compelling read.
As always, Susan Hill’s characters are well drawn and the many threads of the story are cleverly woven together. It is not my favourite of the series but I really enjoyed having another instalment in the lives of Cat and Simon. I felt that the ending was rather rushed and contrived and would have liked more resolution to the elements of this particular book. I’ll be getting the next one though to find out what happens next to the main characters.
A book group would find many moral questions to talk about and it could also lead to an interesting discussion on crime fiction as a genre.